Here I Am, In Your Life

Picking a favourite REM album is like picking a favourite child, or a favourite Jolly Rancher, for some people. It just can’t be done. Even the most ardent fan is a little cagey on the subject, usually muttering some sort of apology for not having a preference. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus even: some will never veer from their faith in Automatic For The People as the be-all and end-all of alternative rock, some will swear by earlier works like Murmur. New Adventures In Hi-Fi seems to cause some controversy, some fans bemoaning a lack of inspiration and a seeming apathy, some kneeling before the likes of E-Bow The Letter and Electrolite as (rightly) classic examples of the Georgians’ oeuvre.

Myself, I’m still learning. REM is quite the hot topic around YCCMB Towers, with much love up for grabs. So while I’ve heard a great deal of the music, I can’t claim a definitive opinion of any sort.

Not that that’s ever stopped me before. Green is my favourite REM. It’s living proof that major labels need not be the restrictive, binding influence they’re imagined to be, Warners' allowing REM to get away with some of their most goosebump-raising moments on this record. But REM were always accessible – their songs, while in no way lowbrow are impossible to resist, and certainly not difficult – on first listen at least. There’s great depths. There’s pop aplenty on Life’s Rich Pageant, for example, and plenty of solid, almost traditional songwriting on all their prior releases. That’s why they were so well-positioned to go on and become the World’s Biggest Band, for a while – accessible, yet credible enough for indie kids to fall in love with.

Green was the starting point, the move away from IRS that signalled that bigger things lay in store. It starts with the brash Pop Song 89 that, along with Stand, was the commercial draw that chances are were pushed as singles by Warner – Stand in particular draws some ire amongst diehards. But it’s the acoustic numbers that pull me in: starting at track 3 with arguably one of the band’s greatest ever songs. You Are The Everything is Peter Buck’s finest hour as a mandolin hero, and one of Michael Stipe’s as a singer and a poet. There’s undeniable emotion here, in the construction and rhythm of the words as well as Stipes’ delivery, cracking every now and then with held-in sighs.

World Leader Pretend, Orange Crush, The Wrong Child, I Remember California, these all pass by containing more moments of beauty in each one than some bands manage in their entire career. The latter, particularly, is for me the epitome of the wistful nostalgia that REM do so wonderfully (cf. E-Bow?), and The Wrong Child slays with one cry of “okay.” But I’ve been thinking about this post all week, and try as I might, I can’t put Hairshirt out of my head.

I’ve no idea what the song’s about. "I am not the kind of dog to keep you waiting, for no good reason at all. Run a carbon-black test on my jaw." Not the slightest, but I am convinced just from listening that it’s something vitally important, a bruising, savagely real take on something to remain nameless. I don’t know if it’s the suspended mandolin chords, or Stipe’s forceful grace notes on “here I am in your life,” but it really tugs. The phrasing is so unique, so REM, and it has but sparse accompaniment (on mandolin again), which is all that’s necessary: REM are not so much a band intent on the overblown, so quiet suffices when it’s time for quiet.

It quite genuinely caused some fraught decision-making to pick Hairshirt. After all, You Are The Everything is one of the classic indie pop songs of the last twenty years, I Remember California is so wonderful as well, but I think I've made the right choice, just about.

REM - Hairshirt (Green, 1988)


Em said...

danny baker killed bob marley. that's a fact that you'd think would have been more widely publicised than it has been.

Em said...

this is a fact which has nothing to do with r.e.m.

mjrc said...

oh simone, you have got it SO right with choosing hairshirt.

to me, it's partly about finally finding what you've been looking for and being at peace with it. it's also about finally accepting yourself and then offering yourself up--to life and to someone--saying here i am, i love you, let's do this together, even though we're all ultimately alone and it's all been said before.

of course, it could just be a dog's perspective on life!

Throttleback said...

I started listening to REM when I was in High School. College radio was all I would listen to and every DJ was obsessed with two songs: I will follow and 1,000,000. Chronic Town was hard to find in my town and I didn't hear much from REM until I was in college. My roommate senior year was a murmur fan. Had to listen to it IN ORDER. I bought it for him on CD even though neither of us had a cd player yet. But he would never listen to it out of order.
From him I became a fan.
A few days ago I decided to go back into my REM archives and listen to every album in chronological order, starting with Chronic Town.
I just completed Monster and I must say (and I was a die hard, remember) it has become a chore. Getting through Out of Time was difficult enough and Autmoatic for the People was moody and all, with some amazing moments but, truth be told, REM is really all about Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning and Life's Rich Pageant. LRP is, easily, their best album after murmur.
If you listen to the stuff they way I have, a few things become evident. First, they weren't having as much fun anymore. Just pounding out tunes because it was better than getting a real job. They were tight and melodic and amazing. Then Stipe started to take himself too seriously and his influence over the direction of the band took hold. The mood pieces from one album sound like another. There is a track on Monster that is a direct rip off of Losing My Religion. Then they recorded their sound checks and put them out as an album (NAinHIFI) and Bill Berry left the band.
This is a fulcrum point. Berry was the glue. He was the rock and roll. He knew that you had to get to the chorus faster. Without him, the experiments became the norm. And there is almost no reason to listen to them anymore.
Somehow they managed to "appear" relevant but they haven't been in over a decade.
It's sad.
Because I love them. And I WILL get through this project. But, with Hi Fi, Up, Reveal and Around the Sun in front of me, I fear I am about to bore myself to death.

Simone said...

See, I'm going to have to go ahead and disagree with you about New Adventures. I think that has some of the band's best-formed songs on there. There's also some seriously great ones on Up, Reveal and Around The Sun as well.

Sounds like a case of "they're not my REM any more."

Throttleback said...

Oh, no, not in the least, Simone. I am a passionate music lover and an archivist and a musician. It is not my intent to just slam the band. I have been a listener since I was 16. And I have grown up with them. It is actually kind of unique, because when they were just kids making fun, bouncy, jumpy music I was young and as I have grown older so have they and their music. But, listening to their progress over the years, in the order that they themselves have presented it, I have to say, there is something lacking. It isn't "bad" per se and, really, who am I to judge? All artists change. The fire of youth gives way to maturity, etc.
But, in REM's case, the change was slow and hard to discern. Unless you listen to the albums in order.
There is a fire and excitement to CT, Murmur and Reckoning. Growing pains on Fables. Reclamation of intent on Pageant. Confidence and a little self-importance on Document.
Green (I believe named because of the big money contract they received at the time) is where they show signs of age. Of disinterest. Why not? They are multi millionaires now? No one is going to take the money back. They don't HAVE to work as hard. Subsequently, they start to run out of ideas. (IMO) On Out of Time....well...this is where it all goes downhill for me, for other reviewers. There is too much time spent indulging Stipe in experimentation and less time spent writing cohesive, timeless songs. Of course, this is where Losing my Religion" comes from, but it is an anomaly on the album.
Then, a tremendous return to favor with A4TP. Mainly because they straddle the experimentation with lush songsmithing. But, on Monster, something is awry. REM has been given the mantle of "Kings" of alternative music and they take it and run with it. Not only are the songs languid when they should crackle, they don't seem to have any real, new ideas.
This is where I am now. I have the rest of the albums to go. Who knows? Maybe they will change my mind. I doubt it. But, maybe.
But, please, don't use the "They're not my REM anymore" accusation, because it is dismissive and diminishes the amount of time and energy I have spent trying to rediscover a favorite band from my youth.

Simone said...

Ah, but you can see why I would suggest it, surely. No sleight intended, of course.

You're right in many ways: I haven't had the opportunity you have to spend time growing up with and appreciating the band, nor have I dedicated this serious listening time. But it doesn't mean I can't see an album for its merits and in Green's case I don't hold with your position at all. For me it's a perfectly crafted album, not just a collection of songs, with a distinct sound and no trace of a lack of ideas.

Throttleback said...

Absolutely, and happily. I am enjoying your blog.
I would submit that you might want to go back and give three albums another listen: Murmur, Life's Rich Pageant and then listen to Green again. And bear in mind that the time between Murmur and LRP is 3 years. Just thre years to go from one of the greatest debuts in music history to fulfilling the indie/rock promise with such great songs as Hyena, These Days, and I Believe.
Just 2 short years later they would release Green. If you listen to those three in that order, you might see what I am talking about.

Simone said...

I will certainly do so.

I imagine though, if REM were making the same music as they were when they recorded Murmur or Life's Rich Pageant, that they would go the same way as a band like Oasis, who made one great zeitgeist record and have made it over and over since. REM could have turned into U2 quite easily but they haven't.

Maybe Monster and Out Of Time aren't the band's best albums - what band of 25 years has every single perfect. But take a listen to a song like Country Feedback and tell me they're uninspired or treading water. Even newer tracks like Leaving New York on Around The Sun, or Beat A Drum, are incredibly beautiful, as much so as anything the band have ever recorded.

I'd go so far as to say that it would be fairly embarrassing for a group of middle-aged gents such as REM to be writing "fun, bouncy, jumpy music." They have life behind them and it's worn them down and given them experiences they couldn't have had when they were young, and it's enabled them to write mature, subtle pop songs.

I'm listening to Hairshirt again right now, and can't help but feel you've missed out.

Throttleback said...

Well, I don't dislike Hairshirt. I actually don't actively dislike entire REM albums until the end of Monster, which I listened to today and then just gave up. It's too much work. As far as 40somethings making bouncy, jumpy songs? I direct you to "Bad Day". Which was, admittedly, a holdover from their earlier days and was, in my opinion, the best song they released in the last decade.
They could have become U2, who, although I am not a fan, are somewhat releveant lo these many years later. But they didn't. They got lazy and experimental. Too much Stipe and not enough Berry.
But, that said, I finally gave up today right in the middle of New Adventures and switched back to The Fratallis and The Hold Steady. Because I need to listen to music that doesn't make me dread my midterms....twenty years after I already failed them...

Simone said...

To be honest, my take on it is that if you've given up on New Adventures In Hi-Fi to listen to the Fratellis, there's nothing more I can do for you.

Throttleback said...

Seriously? You don't like The Fratellis? What don't you like about it? I think that album is one of the best of last year.

Simone said...

It's lazy, lowest common-denominator, post-Libertines indie-rock designed to appeal to the lager-swilling, indie disco thug. There's a huge number of acts doing the exact same thing, so I find no reason for the Fratellis to even exist. It's bands like that that caused the NME to cease being relevant to anything.

toby said...

since no one's mentioned automatic, I'll do it. the first r.e.m. album i memorized after document...

although everybody hurts makes me cringe i am (still) in absolute love with nightswimming and find the river...they can bring tears still.

that being said, gardening at night may be my fave track...that or country feedback. and don't forget that lovely barbecue ditty 'bout Walter's. :)

Colin said...

It is also a fact that after 'Green' was released Danny Baker killed Phil Spector and Neil Young. Then he ran away to live with Chris Evans in Milton Keynes and they produced three wonderful children and started a 'Kill Jamie Oliver' campaign that was so successful they had to flee to Cyprus to get some peace and quiet from the media, being media shy at heart. No, really. That's how it went... [More seriously, I'm afraid I'm 'one of those' who thinks after L.R.P they 'dipped' and never got that well again. Sorry. But they rocked hard on the 'Green' tour, even though the Blue Aeroplanes nearly stole the show from them...]

Em said...

if phil spector's dead, who's on trial for murder? this conspiracy goes far deeper than i imagined...